Chances are, at this moment, acclaimed comic book artist Dash Shaw is busy at work. To call the 27 year-old Bedstuy-based artist prolific would be an understatement. He’s already published five graphic novels, created an animated series for IFC.com, and enjoyed an impressive amount of critical and mainstream success, including numerous nominations and “Best Of” list mentions for Bottomless Belly Button, a sprawling, experimental—and highly successful—720-page graphic novel that was published in 2009 by the renowned comic book publisher Fantagraphics.
“I feel like I have a good balance, but other people seem to think that I spend too much time drawing,” laughed Shaw. “It’s weird to think of comics/cartoons as my ‘professional life.’ It’s what I spend my time doing. I enjoy it. It’s my personal life too.”
Contrary to what one might envision as the daily work routine of a cartoonist—hunched over a small drafting table, eating unhealthy food, drinking a lot of coffee, smoking cigarettes, having hair-pulling episodes bordering on existential crises—Shaw’s approach is somewhat different, even enjoyable.
“I laugh a lot while I draw and generally have a good time,” said Shaw in an interview conducted over email. “I’m not brooding. It’s fun to have a bunch of pens and markers and paints laid out on the floor and cook something up.”
Shaw’s newest book, BodyWorld, was released in April from Pantheon Books. Clocking in at a comparably slim 384 pages, BodyWorld is a beautiful and complexly illustrated tour-de-force of innovative form and layout. Set in a futuristic, dystopian world, the book follows the plight of rogue botanist cum professor of questionable ethics cum drug addict Paul Panther who leaves New York City to take a high school teaching gig in a small conservative community called Boney Borough, where he becomes intertwined in the lives of Miss Jewel, the alluring science teacher who has hired him; Pearl Peach, a rebellious young student; and Billy Borg, the high school’s star athlete. Panther has been brought in to research a mysterious plant—a plant, as Panther soon discovers, that grants brief, intense telepathic abilities. As Panther begins to unleash the stream of chaos that seems to follow him everywhere he goes, the community grows increasingly displeased.
Shaw’s method for illustrating these scenes—trippy yet logical and precise—is as enveloping as it is formally experimental. One of the brilliant grounding motifs is the recurring use of little map squares to frame the setting of each scene.
“When I’m at the drawing board, I want to be transported to another place,” said Shaw. “The whole book should feel like a consistent place. Everything about it. So the BodyWorld book, the design of the book itself, should be BodyWorld-like and all of the drawings should continue that environment. When I’m starting a comic, I usually start with a map of the world so that I know where I’m going to, like a vacation.”
Originally serialized online as a webcomic, Shaw’s decision to keep a full version online is an interesting one. Could such a move possibly deter sales? Shaw doesn’t necessarily believe so.
“The book is a different thing,” he said. “It has new material, lots of new pages, and I changed, redrew or recolored things. I didn’t want to take it offline when the book came out because it started as a webcomic, and doing it online powered me through finishing it. It’d be weird if I just took it offline.”
Gabriel Fowler, owner of the Williamsburg comic bookstore Desert Island, which hosted a recent release party for BodyWorld, agrees: “Dash’s last book was a breakthrough hit, which I think is partially due to the book design itself. The object was satisfying to hold and looked amazing on the shelf, which helped draw attention from non-comics readers. The BodyWorld book has a similar appeal as an amazingly-designed object. Comics fans may have read it online for free, but will buy the book for collectability. The mass-market book crowd may be harder to sell due to the unique layout and design, but some will check it out for exactly those reasons. Dash is a rare guy in that he’s an experimental artist enjoying mainstream success, which almost never happens.”
Born in Hollywood, California, Shaw spent his formative years in Richmond, Virginia. It was there he became interested in comics.
“My dad read a lot of comics,” said Shaw. “There were comics lying around my house growing up. He had superhero comics and stoner comics and there are Will Eisner, Edward Gorey and Frank Miller prints hanging on the walls at their house.”
After finishing high school, Shaw moved to New York to attend Manhattan’s prestigious School of Visual Arts, where he graduated from in 2005. While at SVA he learned a lot, particularly about figure-drawing and painting, skills which he put to use in The Unclothed Man in 30 A.D., a series of graphic short stories about a man posing as a droid to be a nude figure model that he published as a book as well as a series of animated shorts produced by IFC.com.
“I’m glad I went to SVA, even though I spent the majority of my time there wondering whether or not I should drop out,” admitted Shaw. “Art school definitely isn’t a romantic thing for an artist to face up to. It’s just not a romantic origin story for an artist to have. Artists will graduate and want to look untrained, unschooled, like folk art, because folk artists are definitely more romantic and mysterious than another BFA graduate.”
These days Shaw enjoys living at the Bedstuy border between North and South Brooklyn for its spaciousness and its affordability.
“It’s a family neighborhood,” he says. “I wish there were better places to eat, but I have a relatively large space, for New York, and the rent is cheap. Not as cheap as when I lived in Richmond but doable.” Although Shaw doesn’t go out much—“cartooning requires sitting at home and drawing by yourself,” he explained—he enjoys the “strong artistic community around New York.”
Not one to rest on his current accomplishments, the busy young artist is tackling two new ambitious projects, a feature-length film being developed with Sundance Labs called The Ruined Cast and a brand new comic. Said Shaw, “I work on the comic if I want to be alone and on the animation if I want to talk to other people, since the movie is a big collaborative process. It’s a good way to break up the day.”